How Food Impacts our Mental Health

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How Food Impacts our Mental Health

Over the years we’ve become more and more aware of mental health, and it seems like rates are rising. But is it that we’re speaking about mental health more openly and better diagnosis?

Mental health plays a key role in our overall health & wellbeing. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

It’s more about being mentally well, rather than being mentally ill.

The State of our Mental Health

To understand the severity of mental health in Australia at the moment, we’re going to highlight some figures.

1 in 7 will experience depression in their life, 45% will experience mental illness

The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw an increase in the use of mental health services such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue. With the snap lockdowns, disconnection from friends and family, and financial stress of reduced or no work, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. What was surprising is that there hasn’t been a reported increase in suicides during the pandemic. There has been an increase of prescription antidepressants though.

What Puts You at Risk?

The cause of poor mental health is so variable and can be hard to pinpoint one specific factor. It can come back to the question of nature vs. nurture. Did the environment set up the potential of poor mental health. Or was it your genetic makeup. It does seem like some people are more prone to feeling down and anxious in the same situation.

There is some research to show that your genetics play a role. If you have a blood relative with a history of mental illness, then you’re more likely to have a mental illness as well. The chemistry of your brain can impact your risk of depression and other mental disorders too. When neural pathways are impaired through traumatic brain injury or alcohol and drug abuse, you’re more likely to experience a mental illness.

Then we have the lifestyle and environmental factors. Past trauma, stressful situations, toxic relationships, death, or break-ups. These can trigger a feeling of being down, overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.

Further on, depression has been found to be associated with chronic low grade inflammation. The cause of this inflammation is varied: poor diet, being inactive, sleep, smoking and other factors. The difficult thing here is that although these factors may worsen depression, when you’re feeling down and low, you’re more likely to eat more processed foods, move less, and sleep poorly.

Using Diet to Treat Poor Mental Health

Have you experienced it before? For whatever reason, you haven’t touched a vegetable all week and you’re living off two minute noodles or anything out of a packet. There is no shame in that, life happens, other things take priority. The issue is that at the end of the week, you can find yourself irritable, fatigued, and in a pretty bad state.

There was an incredible study that researched the impact of diet to treat major depressive episodes. The SMILES Trial was a 12 week randomised control trial that had one group receive diet support and another receive social support. The participants had severe clinical depression and were using a range of other treatment including therapy and pharmacotherapy.

RCT for SMILES Trial

At the end of the 12 weeks, the participants in the diet support group showed significantly greater improvement in symptoms than the social support group.

This wasn’t the first research to investigate diet and mental health. Another meta-analysis has associated a Mediterranean diet with a 30% reduced risk of depression.

So, What Diet Should You Follow?

It’s not specific foods or superfoods that have shown to promote better mental health. It’s dietary patterns, looking at your food intake as a whole.

Most focus has been on the Mediterranean style diet. Below we have the modified Mediterranean diet that was used in the SMILES Trial. It’s also what our Australian Dietary Guidelines are based on.

Modified Mediterranean Diet

What I really love about this approach is that it really focuses on all the nutritious food that you should aim to include in your diet. There’s very little focus on cutting foods out. We call this the Abundance mindset.

This diet is high in fibre, contains plenty of healthy fats, and an array of antioxidants. All of which are super beneficial for reducing inflammation in the body.

Are There Foods to Avoid?

There aren’t any foods that you should eliminate altogether from your diet. As we’ve said, this is all about your dietary pattern. So if the majority of your diet is Mediterranean focused, then you’re kicking goals.

Diets that are high in processed carbohydrate and saturated fats have been found in those with poor mental health. We’re talking about deep fried foods, cakes, pastries, chips, and such. Having these foods as a part of your diet isn’t going to cause you to feel down and depressed. In fact, we hope it brings you some joy!

It’s more about if your diet is based on these types of foods, with little focus on the whole foods from the Mediterranean diet.

The Impact of Alcohol

Ever experienced a bit of hang-xiety?

Alcohol impacts quite a few areas that can leave you feeling worse-off.

Alcohol Leads to inflammation, Contributes to poor gut health, Impacts the brain's natural level of happy chemicals, Disrupts your sleep pattern, so you wake feel tired and grumpy

In moderation of 200ml per day, red wine has been found to be beneficial for mental health. This is due to the antioxidant content through, which can be found in your fruits and vegetables. And it’s definitely not a case of more equals better.

Where lies the practicality?

When you feel down, depressed, and anxious, everything is hard. It could be difficult to eat at all, or maybe you just want to eat for comfort. Alcohol can be relied on to tune out and forget the world. So implementing these recommendations could seem impossible in that moment.

That’s where we come in. When you work with our Compeat Dietitians, you have access to us all of the time. When the going gets tough, you’ll have the right support at your fingertips.

Our dietitians are experts of meeting you where you’re at. If you’re in survival mode right now, they’ll help you implement the smallest and easiest changes to help you to progress.

You shouldn’t have to do this alone.

Curious and looking to read more? References below!

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 4326.0, 2007. ABS: Canberra.
  • Kitchener, B.A. and Jorm, A.F. (2009). Youth Mental Health First Aid: A manual for adults assisting youth. ORYGEN Research Centre, Melbourne.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2014). Australia’s Health 2014. AIHW: Canberra.
  • The Australian Senate. (2010). The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia Report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
  • World Health Organisation. (2008). The global burden of disease: 2004 update
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Mental health impact of Covid-19. AIHW: Canberra.
  • Berk, M., Williams, L., Jacka, F., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J., Moylan, S., Allen, N., Stuart, A., Hayley, A., Byrne, M. and Maes, M., 2013. So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?. BMC Medicine, 11(1).
  • Psaltopoulou T, Sergentanis TN, Panagiotakos DB, Sergentanis IN, Kosti R, Scarmeas N. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: a meta-analysis. Ann Neurol. 2013;74(4):580–91.
  • Jacka, F., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M., Brazionis, L., Dean, O., Hodge, A. and Berk, M., 2017. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine, 15(1).
  • O’Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden S, Brennan SL, Williams LJ, Pasco JA, et al. Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(10):e31–42. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302110.